In the first week of the new year, Chinese President Xi Jinping instructed his armed forces to be “combat-ready to act at any second” as they began their new training exercises. Mr. Xi also issued new rules for the selection, training and promotion of military personnel. There were several reasons for this aggressive rhetoric.
Firstly, with Joe Biden assuming the U.S. Presidency on January 20, Mr. Xi wants to signal confidence and military preparedness in responding to new U.S. policies on the freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea and Taiwan straits. Secondly, Mr. Xi’s aggressive pursuit of disputed territories in the South China Sea, Taiwan and across borders with India has increased the chances of military conflicts. Thirdly, the performance of China’s Western Theatre Command (WTC) in Ladakh last year was below par. It suffered a high number of casualties in the June 15 Galwan valley clash. The Indian Army also captured the strategic mountainous heights at Rezang La and other passes.
The performance of the WTC in Ladakh last year was poor for a number of reasons. Chinese troops had seen combat after 41 years and were hence not prepared. They have also been suffering from low morale as the force’s senior officers have not got promotions in time due to doubts about their loyalty to Mr. Xi. Many of them were close to Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou, both Vice-Chairmen of the Central Military Commission, who were ousted by Mr. Xi in his anti-corruption campaign, according to reports in the Chinese media. While Xu died in custody under investigation in 2015, Guo got a life sentence in 2016.
The WTC has been facing problems in acclimatisation of its soldiers. Recently, 10,000 troops from the WTC were moved to lower locations for recuperation. The force has been struggling with managing the joint training of its army, strategic support and air force units, with the arrival of new fighter and stealth aircraft, rockets, artificial intelligence-based drones and other equipment.
Recently, Mr. Xi replaced Gen. Zhao Zongqi, the retiring commander of the WTC, with Gen. Zhao Xidong, who had served at Doklam in 2017 and is close to him. Mr. Xi reportedly assured the new commander that his men would be given the same promotions and benefits as those in the other theatres, with special perks for combat troops stationed in “tough and remote bordering locations”.
In the past, promotions in the Chinese armed forces were based on the political loyalty of officers, their connections with the Chinese Communist Party leadership and personal background, with merit bagging low priority. Now, the forces are required to display their loyalty to Mr. Xi. The President has also changed the posture of the Chinese armed forces from defensive to offensive.
Borrowing from American military doctrines, Mr. Xi has unveiled an ambitious vision for the restructuring of the Chinese armed forces, by introducing the Joint Theatre Command concept to align with various regional threats. The armed forces are also being infused with new technologies like artificial intelligence and new concepts of “intelligentised” warfare. However, the training of the Chinese armed forces to adapt to these American concepts would not be easy given the lack of cross-fertilisation with other forces, which have successfully incorporated these doctrines.
The country’s armed forces also suffer from a number of other structural issues: they are a political and not a professional force, and the personnel are mostly conscripts with low levels of education and low motivation (mostly from one-child families). They lack a tough mindset and battlefield experience, and face a serious problem of ‘brain drain’. These limitations will certainly affect the performance of the Chinese armed forces in a war with any professional army, as was seen in Ladakh.
Yogesh Gupta is a former Ambassador